Charles James, fashion’s original enfant terrible, was the genius designer of the 50s who inspired many who followed including Christian Dior. We catch up with Michèle Gerber Klein, author of his new biography, Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man, Fame, Fashion, Art. —SK
Illustration by Antonio Lopez who sketched hundreds of James’s designs.
Your location? I’m in the library
of my Manhattan apartment looking at my books and flowers.
Your books? On my coffee table,
I have a book by my friend and partner at the Whitney, Fiona Donovan, Reubens and England. There’s a book called Ultimate Style, which is about the best of the best-dressed list by my friend Bettina Zilkha. I have We Had Such a Good Time, the Memories of Emily Fisher Landau, and a book about Boucheron jewelry because I used to wear Boucheron all the time, and I also have a fairy tale book illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Fashion beginnings? I’m half
French, and my father loved to take me to Bergdorf Goodman when I was young to go shopping. I had an extremely good-looking, flirtatious father. He’d have all of the sales girls in a tizzy. It was a time when you’d go into a parlor and sit, and the sales girls would bring clothes.
“Even though I thought I knew everything about fashion, I didn’t know about Charles James,” quips author Michèle Gerber Klein on the phone from her apartment in New York, “So, at the request of my friend R. Couri Hay, I watched hours of videotaped interviews with James conducted over thirty years ago at the Chelsea Hotel where he lived.” The 20 hours of interviews by Hay, who was an editor at Interview magazine at the time, became the fabric that helped Klein weave a compelling new fashion biography about the man who walked the fine line between genius and manic madness: Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man, Fashion, Fame, Art. A prominent philanthropist, Klein’s own life is as interesting as her subjects. An avid art collector, she’s a student of both fashion and the arts. She chairs the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Library Committee and is a member of both the Architecture and Design and the Photography Acquisition Committees at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. She is also on the Photography Acquisition Committee at The Whitney.
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Everyday style? Today, I wear a lot of Brunello Cucinelli. I’m into comfort and luxury. I wear some Saint Laurent, but it varies. The designers have been switching around, so I switch too. Alexander McQueen’s creations are not that easy to wear.
in college. It was my only heartbreak—that’s a horrible thing to say. I’m a fairly happy-go-lucky person, so I was shocked it me so long to kick it. Fur stance? All your readers are going to hate me for this, but I do wear my vintage fur. You see, New York is really cold in winter, and down coats and fake fur don’t cut it in below-zero weather—even if you’re only walking a block. So, it’s out of necessity and a comfort thing. First job? One of my first fashion jobs was picking out the clothes for the windows at Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue. I was in my 20’s, and it was a nice job. Greatest strength? I’m perceptive and empathetic. Character change? I’m a big
procrastinator, and I’d like to change that.
Fabulous friends? Dr. Valerie Steel, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, is fabulous. She was a high school dropout but ended up getting her Ph.D. from Yale. Harold Koda is also fabulous. He wrote the forward to my book. Those are the two I admire the most.
Favorite decade? I like the 70s fashion because that’s when I was getting to be grown up and started to put myself together. Writing challenge? For me, writing is a visual exercise. I’m dyslexic, and I never write correctly on the computer. Your heroes? Napoleon and
Alexander the Great—I like great conquerors.
Biggest heartbreak? Oh, I remember—sure I do. Gerard Guez. It took me months to get over him. I was about 19 and still
Charles James Portrait of an Unreasonable Man - Fame, Fashion, Art, Hardcover, 6” x 9” 256 pages, $37.50, rizzoli.com